Grace stayed true to her word. The next day she planned to drop off the photo albums at the orphanage, deciding not to take more for the time being. Shaking the nagging inside her, scolding her for abandoning the mission unfinished, would take some time. Seeing her workload that morning served as a wakeup call to just how lax she'd been as of late. She worked through lunch and opted out of picking Annie up from school, determined to get at least half of the tasks cleared by dinner. It was tiresome, but it would be worth it. Oliver didn't bother her, glad she was spending time in the office and no longer sneaking around. He let her be as he went for a walk with Annie and Sandy before supper. When they came back, he checked in.
She seemed pleased to see him which calmed his nerves. He hadn't realized how tense the whole situation with her had made him. It bothered him that he still felt a lingering suspicion or rather distrust. He'd learned quickly that when Grace truly set her mind to something, she was going to get it. Annie was living proof. What was to stop her from going behind his back again? Especially now that she knew what not to do.
Pushing the increasing unpleasant thoughts out of his mind, he asked, "Nearly done?"
"Nearly," she replied with a sigh. "No wonder you were sore with me. I didn't realize I'd left so many things unfinished. Time has gone by so fast."
"I'll still have more to do tomorrow, but I should be able to take on some of my regular duties as well. I don't need anything else being put off until later."
"I never realized just how much I rely on you."
"It doesn't seem like so much in the regular routine of the day. It's only in hindsight."
"And you're sure you don't want someone to take some of it on?"
"Let's not get into that again."
"I think it would help, that's all."
"We're surrounded by people more often than not. I like having moments here and there when we can be alone. Even our evenings aren't in solitude. Someone's always up and around."
"I'm starting to realize why people aim to have children after marriage."
Grace rolled her eyes. "Annie isn't the issue."
Oliver smiled. "I know, I'm teasing."
Grace's mouth opened to speak, but after uttering a single syllable closed it immediately thinking better of what she was about to say. Of course, this didn't go unnoticed by Oliver.
"What is it?" he questioned.
"Come on, what?"
"No, it sounded good in my head for a brief moment."
"You can tell me."
"I know I can, I just don't want to."
"Because it will sound too forward."
"I don't have a problem with that."
"Fine…" she breathed. "I was going to say it might be nice for us to take Annie up to the house in the country."
"What's the matter with that?"
"I don't think it would be appropriate."
"What do you mean?"
Feeling as though he was pushing, she said, "You know exactly what I mean. It won't matter how innocent the trip is, some no-good reporter will have a field day at the notion of us taking a trip together."
"I don't know what scandal they're expecting with an eleven-year-old along."
"It won't make a difference to them."
"I thought you didn't care what people thought?"
"I don't entirely, but for the sake of all of us, it's the kind of attention we don't need. We're finally slipping out of the limelight — for now. I like it that way. I hate feeling like everyone is watching."
"You'll learn to ignore them in time."
"Perhaps, but right now I can't ignore them. I'm always afraid something bad and untrue is going to get back to Annie."
"If it does we will explain it to her. You should know better than anyone that she's got a good head."
"But she is still a child."
"Obviously nothing is set in stone, but it does sound like a nice weekend trip."
"Sometime in the future. We need to get things settled down first, all potential rumors aside."
"Anyways, with the holidays coming up things are going to be busy again before we know it."
"They're never much busier than usual."
Grace chuckled. "Have you met Annie? This will be her first real Thanksgiving and Christmas. The girl has been planning the feast with Mrs. Pugh since August."
Suddenly able to envision the impending mess, Oliver sighed, "… Good heavens."
Giving into the fact she wasn't going to focus on any more work for the evening, Grace pushed her typing aside and came out from behind her desk. "Embrace it."
"I don't believe I have any other choice."
"I think I need a nap," he half-joked.
"Then I won't mention Christmas to you just yet."
"Please don't… oh no, there's going to be a man in a red suit coming through the fireplace, isn't there?"
Grace laughed, saying nothing more. Knowing Annie, there probably would be.
. . .
Getting back into the groove of work had proved to be a more difficult task than Grace anticipated. Her mind kept wandering back to Annie and her parents. It discouraged her she didn't end up with a single trace of them, not even a hint toward the right direction. Maybe Oliver was right. It was a lost cause not worth wasting time with until the proper authorities could investigate.
She didn't mean to put him and Annie on the back burner. The feeling of guilt didn't leave her since the words left Oliver's mouth. At the same time, she couldn't help but wonder if there was some truth to it. Was she looking for time to herself? Rather, was she subconsciously trying to make sense of the changes? For the first time in months, things were slowing down. There was a better sense of a routine or at least the beginning of one. Maybe it did scare her a bit. The longer they went on, the more difficult it would be to turn back should things, for whatever reason, not work out. No matter what it needed to work out. Evidently, those kinds of thoughts in the back of her mind stressed her out more than she realized.
Oliver granted her the time to return the photo albums an hour before dinner while he made a few phone calls. The entire drive agonized her, feeling as though she'd blown her chance and knowing she wouldn't get these back again.
Cynthia seemed less than pleased by Grace's arrival which Grace attempted to take as a sign she was making the right decision letting this go. She didn't mean to add to the poor woman's burden as she settled things down herself. However, despite her aggravation, Cynthia took the albums from Grace and returned with another box filled with miscellaneous items. She declined a few times, not wanting the temptation. Cynthia won the power struggle, wanting to be left alone to finish sitting the children down for dinner. Seeing the quick change in Cynthia gave Grace another reason to sympathize with Miss Hannigan. She might have started off okay, but apparently, even the kindest of people can be overwhelmed by a hundred screaming kids.
The drive home felt longer than the drive over. Much to her surprise, Grace didn't find her eye wandering to the box. Instead, she thought about Agatha. She wasn't sure why she felt she owed it to her to say thanks for the help and goodbye. Oliver might be right again, associating with her was inappropriate. The line between forgiveness and ignorance was fine. Not for a minute did she believe she herself would come after Annie, but she had a brother seasoned in breaking the law. Who's to say he might not be able to persuade her again? It was a risk she wasn't willing to take. Not only for the slight chance Annie may be in harm's way in the future, but it wasn't worth risking Oliver, either.
All impulses ignored, she made it back home with time to spare before dinner. Not much, just enough to check on Annie. She was quiet the brief minute she saw her when she came home from school and she knew she was likely the reason.
Knocking on her door, Grace walked in without waiting for a response.
"Hi, Grace," Annie said in a monotone, not looking up from her homework.
"Hey, you. Mind if I interrupt for a minute."
Annie shrugged, pushing her math sheet to the side. "Sure."
Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Grace began. "I want to apologize again for not coming along last night."
"Mr. Warbucks and I had a great time."
"I'm glad to hear it… I regretted not going."
"Are you sure you're not mad at us? Mr. Warbucks said you weren't but I dunno."
"I promise I'm not mad at either of you. I guess I may as well tell you now…"
"Tell me what?" Annie questioned.
"I stayed behind because I got some photographs from the orphanage. I know it sounds absurd but I thought that maybe I would be able to find one of your parents."
"You mean you know what they look like?"
"That's the absurd part — I don't. Wishful thinking."
"So you didn't find anything?"
"I'm afraid not, dear. I'm so sorry. I wanted to help you as much as I could with that project of yours."
"It's okay," Annie sighed, trying to put on a brave face. "Thank you for trying. I keep rewriting everything. I don't know how it's gonna turn out. Every time I think I have a good idea it ends up sounding… weird."
"Like I don't know what I'm talking about. And I don't."
"Can I see some of what you have?"
"I have nothin' now. My trash was emptied this morning."
"What am I gonna do, Grace? I'm not really worried about a bad grade, but I don't want the kids to laugh at me. It took a while for them to stop."
"They laughed at you?"
"A little. Nothin' I ain't heard before. Besides, they weren't dumb about it. They also knew I lived here."
Grace chuckled, "That's good?"
Annie shrugged again. "I've heard worse. But…"
"But what?" Grace asked, noticing a look of sadness cross Annie's face.
"It'll bother me more if they tease me about this… because it's true. I don't have a real family."
"Come here," Grace said, holding her hands out. Annie stood, taking her hands as she continued. "Do you know how many people there are in this world without a 'real' family? Thousands. Millions, probably. Look at all of your friends. Do they have 'real' families?"
Annie looked down, hesitating a moment before speaking. "They… they do now… They were adopted."
Grace's heart sank. All she could do was look at the little girl's face. It wasn't until moments like these when she stood there with a frown she realized just how often the child smiled.
"Annie, I… That's not important… What I mean is-"
"Sure it's important. July, she's in the same grade as me and is doin' a project like this. She gets to write about her new parents. If I write about you or Mr. Warbucks, I have to put your names. That's not a real family."
"Sweetheart… I know it's difficult to understand right now, but just because it's not in writing doesn't mean the three of us aren't a family. We've all been through more than most go through in a lifetime. We're still making sense of things."
"A family is a mom, a dad, and a kid. Not a kid, a rich guy, and his half girlfriend half assistant."
"If you word it that way it sounds bizarre…" Grace avoided Annie's eye for a moment. She never realized how terrible their situation looked from the outside.
"I don't know what to call you on paper."
"What confuses me is where this all is coming from all of a sudden. Why haven't you said anything before?"
Annie looked away again, an angry air surrounding her. "I never had to talk about it before."
Hit with realization, Grace said, "This is what the kids at school have been saying, haven't they?"
Now freeing her hands from Grace's, Annie walked back to her desk and sat down, keeping her back turned. "Not all of them."
"One too many it seems like."
"I don't want to talk about it."
Grace stood, deciding whether or not she should walk over to her. Within a few seconds, Mrs. Greer made the decision for her, coming in an announcing dinner.